Sunday, May 13, 2012

The kinds of pictures I never want to have to take

Crash aftermath, May 6th 2012, 3:35 p.m.

When things like this happen, it makes you realize just how quickly your whole life can be upended, or ended.

Out of nowhere, out of chaos, in a blur of ricocheting cars and cacophony of squealing tires and breaking glass, a car hurtled into us, spinning like a plaything, slamming the truck's front end into oblivion, as the airbags burst forth to cushion the blow.

There was no time to do anything but scream.

Out of nowhere, out of chaos, came a brutal reminder of the cruelty of this world, a world where doing what you are supposed to do and following the rules is no guarantee of safety or happiness, a reminder that we have only the illusion of control.  To be sure, there have been plenty of times when I have gotten into a car and considered that it could be the last thing I do on this earth, though that has usually been in the face of severe weather, or a drive through neighborhoods known for carjackings or drive-by shootings.  But this, a simple trip to the movies on an overcast suburban afternoon, was not the sort of thing I would have suspected would end in such sudden violence.

We were doing the right thing, wearing our seat belts, and were stopped, as we should have been, at the red light waiting for it to change.  And our driver was not intoxicated or exhausted or distracted by text messaging or a cell phone conversation or lunch from the drive-thru.  We were doing exactly what we were supposed to do, but a single driver's disobedience of the traffic laws--going full speed through a red light--caused a chain of events that would obliterate three cars, and ours was the third.

A car or truck is the sort of thing I suppose you can take for granted after a while.  At first it is new (maybe pre-owned and therefore new only to you) and then it is not any longer, just yours, a familiar shape in the parking lot, a mobile storage unit of sorts.  This was the same truck that my dutiful fiance had pressed into service to haul my paintings from my studio to UIC.  And now it had been reduced to a crumpled husk of its former self.  This was the vehicle his 10-year-old niece had come skipping down the sidewalk to climb aboard, her long ponytail swinging behind her in an idyllic scene like something out of a picture book, unaware that this would be the vehicle that would ferry her to a terrifying fate.  This was the truck that would make the ultimate sacrifice.  Its passengers survived uninjured, but it would be pronounced a total loss a few days later.

The suddenness of it all had jolted me from my passive passenger frame of mind.  I could have died or could have become permanently maimed.  At least I had done most of the things I wanted to do with my life, I realized.  At least I had pursued my dreams and become an artist, even though it was not full-time.  There was only one big thing I'd been wanting to do that was still left undone.  Now I felt the need to do it with a greater urgency than ever before.  Life really is too short, I realized.

The terrified 10-year-old passenger seated behind me cried out in fear and I bolted from my seat to go and comfort her.  There were no cuts or bruises I could see on her, but the injury to her psyche was real.  This was her first car accident, and it wasn't some low speed parking lot fender bender, either.  And I was enraged at the cruelty and carelessness of the reckless grown-ups who made a child I love so dearly cry.  Our afternoon had been shattered.  We would not get to see The Avengers today, but I would do my part to avenge this great injustice.

And so armed with my weapon of choice, my camera, I took as many photographs as I could of the vehicular carnage around us.  Growing up as a lawyer's daughter, there had been plenty of times when I had opened a freshly printed pack of photos only to discover that behind the usual family snapshots were pictures of car crashes and close-ups of the wounded flesh sustained by the victims of these collisions.  Now it was my turn to take such photos.

I always keep my little "purse camera" in my purse so that I can capture the beautiful and interesting things I might see when I least expect it.  Now it was being used to document the wreckage on a road beside a strip mall in the suburbs.  The truck stood there like a wounded beast, bleeding coolant onto the asphalt below it, its front end mangled, never to be driven again.  And I made sure to capture every shard of glass in 12 megapixel clarity.  Someone was going to pay for this.  I was fighting back.

For once, in the wake of disaster, I was not mired in depression or shrouded in denial.  People forget that anger is a K├╝bler-Ross stage, too.  And it only made me angrier to be told how I was supposed to feel.  How insulting.  There is a certain clarity about anger.  It makes me feel decisive.  It helps me to see what needs to be done.  In this case, it inspired me to stop putting off an important conversation and take action.

I am not as angry about what happened anymore.  But I'm not Pollyanna, either.  When the dust settles in the aftermath of the unsettling, sometimes the reason it all happened becomes clear, but sometimes it never does.  I think it can been foolish to hastily imbue a disastrous event with a particular, definitive meaning.  I also think it can be monstrous to expect people to react in a particular way.  I am allowed to feel my feelings, even if you wouldn't feel that way if you were me.  You're not me, I'm not you.  Yes, of course I am grateful I'm still alive and uninjured, but I am also more willing to acknowledge my own truth because I am grateful for my life.

With a sudden clarity I also see that I made the right decision when I chose to leave the job I had been working at for over 2 years for another one that would allow me more time to pursue my art.

Life really is too short.

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